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The Travel Episodes

Final Destination: Nicaragua

The Magic of the Corn Islands

Do you remem­ber the series »Lost«? Little Corn Island could be the spit­ting image of the island in the series, only in real life. Many people fall under its spell and never leave. Chris­toph Karr­asch would like to be one of them. 

When I meet Kelly that morning I have no idea that this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other. With glassy eyes and a hairdo that resem­bles an explo­ded palm tree, she’s headed my way at the western beach of Little Corn Island. It seems as if Kelly was up all night. 

»Chris­toph, I was up all night. What time is it?«

It’s ten o’ clock. She flings her arms around my neck. She smells a little of booze and a little of sweat. The whiff of a camp­fire is still in her hair. She sighs, exhausted. Then she whis­pers,

»Last night chan­ged my life.«

I am making my rounds on Little Corn Island to say my good­byes. In half an hour, the next panga will take me back to Big Corn Island. One last time, I traipse around the lodgings of my island acquain­tan­ces to tell ever­yone good­bye. To enjoy a last beer in the morning at Marc’s and Paul’s place, to give Norah from the other side at Grace’s Place one last hug. I’m not sure where Clara lives – but if she’s not out and about she’s usually with her Aqua Boy. Well, and then there’s Kelly who was going to go back with me today. We met on her fortieth birth­day. That was yester­day.
 
 
02-leben-auf-little-corn
 
 
»Looks like I’ll be stay­ing here on Little Corn, Chris­toph«, she says and ther­eby sounds oddly breath­less. We had actually deci­ded last evening that we would leave toge­ther today. But we’ve only known each other for a few hours and don’t owe each other any explana­tion. So I assure her that it’s really okay if she intends to stay for a few more days. 

»No, you don’t under­stand,« she inter­rupts me. »I mean fore­ver. I know it sounds crazy. But it looks like I will be stay­ing on Little Corn fore­ver.«

I’m puzzled. She wouldn’t be the first one who ends up stay­ing here. Like Clara– or the French twins up in the light house. Still, Kelly’s news makes me ponder. I look at her and try to remem­ber what happened last night: I lost sight of Kelly after I finis­hed my last Cuba Libre and went to bed. She was headed over to the Tiki Bar to go dancing. What exactly happened in the mean­time? And what’s more: what is it with this island that people are affec­ted by it in such a way? 

 

* * *

Second Chapter

Flying and Strolling on Big Corn

There are two ways to get to the Corn Islands: a rela­xed flight in a propel­ler plane or a rough ride across the sea. It’s crys­tal clear which one our wild adven­tu­rer choo­ses.

One week earlier. About seventy kilo­me­ters off the coast of Nica­ra­gua, two tiny spots lie in the Carib­bean Sea. Two small, green mops of fuzz, which poke out from the turquoise blue, liquid rug and which somehow don’t want to fit in with the rest of the Central Ameri­can coun­try. They are called Las Islas del Maíz, the Corn Islands. But nobody cares much about the offi­cial language which is Spanish. 

The people’s looks: Afro-Caribbean.
The music: Reggae.
The tongue: English creole.

Which is why the islands are simply called: Big Corn and Little Corn. Yo.

It doesn’t matter if you travel by ferry or plane: the route from the main­land to Little Corn always goes via Big Corn, which is regu­larly frequen­ted. I’m embarr­as­sed to say that I’m a bad sailor and easily get seasick. Having heard that the almost five-hour long boat ride from Blue­fields can become stre­nuous every now and then, I decide to fly. 

In fact, it’s unbe­liev­a­ble that airplanes can land on Big Corn at all – given that the bigger one of the two islands doesn’t span more than ten square kilo­me­ters. During our approach, I disco­ver that the two-kilometer long runway makes a complete cut through the island, from the North to the South. It divi­des Big Corn into a slim West and a paun­chy East.

 
 
04-anflug-big-corn
 
 
I wonder what it was like when they plan­ned the construc­tion of the airport? When the inha­bi­tants were infor­med that, in the future, it would take them half an hour to march around the runway if they wanted to visit their neigh­bor living vis-à-vis, only 50 meters away, as the crow flies? Or if they wanted to go shop­ping or to school? Just so a lazy tourist (babb­ling some­thing about seasick­ness) could reach Big Corn, safely and dryly and quickly? Somehow that’s…

Luck­ily, there’s a “but” in this story.

Only a few minu­tes after landing, I am torn out of my bubbling thoughts. Oh well, some­ti­mes I’m just a bit too German…

You’ve got to put all of this into perspec­tive: offi­ci­ally, the paved area is a runway, yes. In the morning and in the after­noon, when the prop planes take off and land, it is closed to pede­stri­ans. But in the remai­ning 23 hours of the day, people spread out their picnic blan­kets, orga­nize tennis matches, ride their bikes. To the islan­ders, the runway is a prome­nade for strol­ling, a sports field, a play­ground and a meeting place. Or simply: the world’s biggest side­walk.

 

* * *

Third Chapter

After She is Me

A taxi ride on Big Corn costs one dollar, no matter where. But riding a bike is free – if you ask nicely. 

The man with the grey hair wipes his greasy, fishy fingers on his form­erly white under­s­hirt and shakes his head, »Fish tacos are out. Come again at three.«

Then he lifts his thumb and smiling, reveals the gap between his teeth. 

I guess the fish tacos must be killer if they’re alre­ady out in the middle of the day. 

»Looks like you were dying to try these, huh?« a voice says behind me. Then a second voice joins the laugh­ter. I turn around. It’s the two Ameri­cans from my lodgings. We’d talked the night before at the bar and they gave me the tip to stop by here at Victoria’s on the nort­hern coast to try the »pheno­me­nal fish tacos«. 

»Haha, and what about you?« I coun­ter laug­hing and point at their hands. They’re each holding a piece of coco­nut bread from the Island Bakery – a tip that I in turn had given them. 

That’s exactly how it works here. Big Corn isn’t peppe­red with your typi­cal tourist high­lights – except for the excep­tio­nal view from Quinn Hill, which is one of the island’s highest points. 

Which is why unusual street signs make you happy – or the secret tips from other travelers. 

Anot­her tip was: in South End, take a left behind the cemetery. You’ll reach a soli­tary bay where rock forma­ti­ons have crea­ted small water basins.«

And I wasn’t promi­sed too much – but I also wasn’t told ever­y­thing: the water in the basins has a tempe­ra­ture of 40 degrees, which isn’t really necessary when it’s 33 degrees °C outside. 

I found this photo madness all by myself – on the southwes­tern bay when suddenly… 

… these two girls bomb my picture. 

As obser­vant readers of this story, you have long noti­ced that there’s not much going on on Big Corn. If the story­tel­ler finds it necessary to include rusty crab signs in his selec­ted circle of vaca­tion high­lights worth mentio­n­ing, it seems there’s not much more that’s worth mentio­n­ing. And you know what? That’s exactly why (so few) people like to come here: because they don’t have to share these beau­ti­ful Carib­bean beaches with anyone. 

Nothing earth-shaking happens on Big Corn.
How wonder­ful.

I would also expect the same setting, the same atmo­s­phere, the same beach bar reggae beats 15 kilo­me­ters furt­her to the north-east. Three square kilo­me­ters with a lot of room for para­di­siac nothing­ness. So it’s even more surpri­sing that the oppo­site seems to be the case on the much smal­ler sister island Little Corn. That the world there moves and doesn’t stand still for many people – some­ti­mes in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. 

 

* * *

Fourth Chapter

Parallel Universe: Paradise

There’s a dare before ente­ring Little Corn. 

It’s such a thing with these pangas, the blue, over­si­zed nuts­hells that commute three times a day between Big Corn and Little Corn. During the crossing, it’s not unli­kely that you will get soaking wet (which can be quite plea­sant when it’s beyond thirty degrees outside) or that you’ll feel your back crack when the boat hits the hard water surface after a wave (which in turn can be quite unplea­sant).

Once in awhile, it happens that a boat tips over in these rough waters. At the last acci­dent of this kind, thir­teen people lost their lives. 

A pretty grue­some picture – still people here are depen­dent on the pangas. They are the connec­tion between the two Corn Islands. Every food that doesn’t grow on the island, every medi­cine or house­hold good, every tool, every bicy­cle tube and every fly swat­ter is brought to the island with the help of these wobbly outboard motor boats. But, above all, for the 800 inha­bi­tants of Little Corn, the pangas are the only gate­way to the outside world. Many islan­ders work on Big Corn, run their errands there, go to the dentist, to school. A current peti­tion to the Nica­ra­guan presi­dent Daniel Ortega aims at provi­ding the remote island with safer boats.

 
 
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A seahorse
 
 
The sea is compa­ra­tively quiet on this day. After half an hour, we dock on to the narrow wooden pier on Little Corn. The locals are alre­ady waiting for the new arri­vals. For a few gold córdoba, they will load up the luggage on their cargo bikes and take it to the respec­tive accom­mo­da­tion. Several curious back­pa­ckers disem­bark, among them also Marc and Paul, the two Ameri­cans I met on Big Corn.

When Paul disco­vers the sea front, he lets out a »Hell, yeah!« He spreads out his arms and turns his face to the sun, »Some­body meant well with us.«

»What brings you here?« I want to know from the two. 

Marc tells me that he’s just taking a time-out from his job in the States and helped build a bridge in the past weeks on the main­land, a volun­tary project. 

»Now we’re taking a two-week vaca­tion. One of the construc­tion workers told us about Little Corn.«

We strap on our back­packs and start looking for our accom­mo­da­tion.

 
 
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Café Desi­deri on Little Corn’s main street

 
 

From the pier, where more locals are dosing in the shade of the trees, a maybe 1.50 meter-long narrow, paved trail runs along the western beach. Soon, it turns out that this is the island’s main street: two café/restaurants, a hand­ful of accom­mo­da­ti­ons, a diving school – that’s it. There are no cars or other moto­ri­zed vehi­cles on Little Corn, ever­yone goes by foot or by bike, at a max. 

»Ten Dollars a day,« the young woman at the bike rental responds when I ask about the price. Her hair is very fair and her accent sounds very fami­liar.

»Where are you from?« I inquire. She seems to get the punch­line and answers me in German, »From Germany.« – we laugh. Clara tells me that she back­pa­cked through Central America with a friend a few months ago. The plan was to travel from Panama to Mexico. 

»And well – on the road, some­body told us about this island. And I fell in love with Roy and got stuck here, I guess.« She looks happy while she tells me all this. And even happier when Roy comes around the corner. He’s a local and from the Corn Islands and recently opened up his own busi­ness, Aqua Boy. Aqua Boy offers snor­ke­ling and fishing tours, rents out bikes and paddling boats. Clara joined him on the spot. »As girl Friday,« she says and beams.

 
 
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Clara from Bava­ria taking down snor­ke­ling hours, her new life on Little Corn. 
 
 

Gary’s and Sullivan’s story is even a bit more surpri­sing. I meet the French twins during my bike tour at the light­house. Clara promi­sed me the best view over the island from there, so I went. Gary and Sulli­van sit on the porch of one of the glossy pain­ted wood bunga­lows which are loca­ted on the hill and show me the way to the light­house.

»You’ve got nice lodgings here,« I say. »How much do you pay per night?« They grin.

»We’re the owners of the hotel,« Sulli­van answers.
»We built it oursel­ves.«

Flab­ber­g­as­ted, I stop in my tracks. Now I want to hear the whole story. In 2013, the twins set out from France to embark on a world trip. There was no plan of coming here. But their path crossed that of anot­her trave­ler who had just retur­ned from Little Corn and who couldn’t stop raving about it.

»So, we came here – and imme­dia­tely fell in love with the island.« Gary recounts. »We always had the secret dream of opening our own hotel. Here on the hill surroun­ding the light­house we found the perfect spot to do so.«

Back in France, they took care of the finan­cing. In 2014, they were ready to start buil­ding and opened last year. 

»That sounds wonder­ful!« I say. They both nod.

At that moment, a gentle breeze blows over the porch and there’s a rust­ling in the tree tops above us. I let my eyes wander across the island, and for a moment, I picture what it would be like if I stayed here, too. I have never asked myself that ques­tion. Of course, I have always wanted to travel to these great places and see the world. That’s why I became a travel author. But on the road, I have never felt the concrete desire to remain in one of these places. Because I always belie­ved I knew where I belon­ged. But now, two men my age are sitting before me who ques­tio­ned exactly that: where they belong and where they would like to be. Toge­ther, they gave up their entire life in France and moved to a place most people haven’t even heard of. Nobody whom I met on my trip knew that Little Corn even exis­ted before they landed here. Three years back, that’s what it was like for Gary and Sulli­van. Now, this island has become their home. 

»Let me guess,« Gary inter­rupts my silence and gazing. »You’re asking yours­elf what kind of a place this is here, aren’t you?« At a loss, I nod and hunch my shoul­ders.

»That’s exactly how I stood here back then, on this hill, trying to make sense of Little Corn.« And then he says, like only someone with a French accent can say it in English,

»I don’t know, man. It’s magic.«

 

* * *

Fifth Chapter

Forty Is a Turning Point

Nonsense, the island isn’t talking to me. But wait – I heard some­thing. Did some­body say some­thing? Nope. I’m all by myself. Will you stop it? Jeez!

I must admit: magic isn’t quite my cup of tea. In gene­ral, I believe in what I see. At the world cham­pi­ons­hip of big drea­mers I would very likely rank at the bottom of the list with this prosaic world­view. I believe I can better shape my life by having a grip on reality rather than having a senti­men­tal flight of fancy and belie­ving in some­thing between Heaven and Earth. 

That’s why I’m even more surpri­sed when I realize that I’m star­ting to search for this Inbet­ween here on Little Corn.

What’s up with this place here?

The island doesn’t span more than three square kilo­me­ters. It has a western and an eastern beach and a narrow trail that cros­ses the base­ball field and takes you to Yemaya, the island’s only luxury resort, which is loca­ted on the remote nort­hern beach. At Derek’s Place, I spend all day in the hammock, I slurp mango shakes at the Turned Turtle on the eastern beach and I meet a bunch of fasci­na­ting people in the woods and at the beach. For example, Michael. He’s a German physi­cian who spends the winter in Nica­ra­gua in order to volun­teer here as a doctor. I keep asking myself what this island is doing to me. I am fasci­nated by this place which seems to be radia­ting so much energy. Is it Little Corn itself? Or is the people? Who – some with a plan, others who are more naive – realize them­sel­ves here. 

I’ve been here for three days and know almost every nook and cranny. During this time, I have alre­ady made many acquain­tan­ces who, thanks to the island’s size, I come across several times a day to chat and whom, out of pure senti­men­ta­lism, I would even refer to as my friends. How come? What does it do to you to be so far away from the rest of the world? Does that make the people here closer then they would be else­where?

Or is it just the Cuba Libre in front of me that once again tastes so outstan­ding?

 
 
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The tattoos on Kelly’s ring fingers symbo­lize her wedding rings. She recently got married to herself.
 
 
But who cares. All these thoughts and daydreams will be obso­lete by tomor­row. I am sitting at the Tran­quilo and it’s alre­ady dark. I can only make out the beach by the soft whoo­shing of the waves. Back in the corner, Clara and Roy are billing and cooing. The twins are here, too and just clin­ked glas­ses with Norah from the other side of the island. Frank, a diving tourist from Hamburg and Michael, the physi­cian from Doctors Without Borders are talking at the bar, and Marc and Paul are clin­king their beer bott­les behind the coun­ter. It’s my last evening on Little Corn. Early tomor­row, I will leave the island and will probably be asking myself for some time what it would be like if I weren’t such a wret­ched realist (okay, and father, whose kids are waiting for him at home). 

Kelly from Port­land is diffe­rent that way. She sits across from me. We’ve known each other for half an hour. The whole place just sang for her because Kelly’s cele­bra­ting her fortieth birth­day today. In the mean­time, her tears of joy over the impromptu birth­day sere­nade have dried. Although it’s actually unclear if it’s really out of joy.
»It’s a very emotio­nal time for me right now,« she says. »40 is quite a bench­mark.«
»I don’t know,« I try to play down the issue and let out the usual, »It’s just a number. Come on, you know, 40 is the new 30.«

»No, it’s not,« Kelly objects. »40 is the half of ever­y­thing. It’s a turning point. 40 asks for a résumé.«

»So? Then what’s your résumé?« Kelly shows me her palms and points to her ring finger. Each is ador­ned by a subtle, small tattoo.

»About a month ago I sealed the first half of my life with a cere­mony – back home in Port­land, I got married to myself.«

I make big eyes. Then let out a »Wow!« Luck­ily, that can mean anything.

Because now, I’m abso­lutely posi­tive that the woman in front of me has lost her marbles.

And still. There’s some­thing about Kelly’s explana­tion that touches me.

»You know, a few months ago I reali­zed that my life didn’t turn out the way I always imagi­ned it would. I don’t have a husband, never had the oppor­tu­nity to have kids.« Kelly strokes the tattoo on her left ring finger. »I became aware that the only person who has always been loyal to me is myself. So I went ahead and married myself.« She laughs out loud. Then tears roll down her face. I am on the fence. 

»You think I’m nuts, don’t you?«

Now I allow myself to laugh as well, but – other than expec­ted – can’t give her a clear answer. To marry yours­elf? Unusual, no doubt. I have never heard of such a thing. Somehow there’s some­thing sad about her story, just the way she told it. Which is why one of us is crying right now. But this pure affir­ma­tion of yours­elf by yours­elf, this clear ‘yes’ to who you are, does impress me rather stron­gly. Do you under­stand what I meant in terms of energy? 

Shortly after two, I say good­bye to Kelly.

»My panga leaves tomor­row morning.« Kelly grabs me by the arm.

»Would you mind if I joined you?« she asks. »I think I’d also like to leave tomor­row.«

»No, not at all– I’m glad. I’ll see you tomor­row!«

 

* * *

 

Eight hours later, I am stan­ding with the still awake Kelly at the western beach. There’s the smell of camp­fire in her hair and I marvel at the spon­ta­neous and enor­mous change of plans she has made to begin the second half of her life. »It’s magic, Chris­toph. This island is magic!« I have a sense where Kelly’s night might have ended yester­day.

»Did you visit the twins?« Kelly nods.

»You won’t believe it. Up by the light­house, there’s a vacant piece of land for sale. I am a certi­fied thera­pist and always had the dream of opening a small health center. A little well­ness, a little medi­cine. Little Corn is the perfect spot. Tomor­row I will meet up with the mayor and the landow­ner so we can talk about ever­y­thing.« She says all this without catching her breath once.

»Wait, wait, wait,« I inter­pose. »All this happened in the past eight hours?« Kelly nods again and ther­eby looks very happy.

»I told you. Last night chan­ged my life.«

 
 
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A last time at the little pier
 
 

At the pier, the panga is ready to disem­bark. I give Kelly one last hug and wish her all the best for her plans, where­ver they might take her. Who knows, maybe she will really stay on Little Corn, or maybe she will get a good night’s sleep and give it anot­her thought. Either way, now I’m able to make up my mind: Kelly is nuts – comple­tely nuts! And I think I’d like to be a little so myself. Then the blue nuts­hell disem­barks and takes me away from this magi­cal place.
 

* * *

Read more

Jena: Next Stop Paradise

My City: Home (2)

Jena: Next Stop Paradise

Early in 2006, the head­line of the British news­pa­per The Econo­mist alre­ady read “If you seek para­dise, go to Jena”. In Germany, howe­ver, people aren’t so sure about that. Wron­gly so, thinks Ariane Kovac.

Start Episode

Road to Mandalay

Burma

Road to Mandalay

A ship from the British Empire. A captain singing karaoke. Spirits at dawn. Martin Schacht and Ken Schlucht­mann travel down the Ayey­ar­waddy from north to south towards Manda­lay.

Start Episode

An Episode by

vonunterwegs.com

Christoph Karrasch

First, Chris­toph Karr­asch wanted to do some­thing with media, then some­thing with travels. Today he does both. When he isn’t produ­cing travel reports for print and tele­vi­sion, he and his family sit on their new couch. Because he also really likes his home back in Schleswig-Holstein. 

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  • Alex Sefrin on 23. Oktober 2016

    Lange musste man warten, um mal wieder was von Dir zu hören und dann so was!!!
    Danke Chris­toph für diese wunder­bar Episode!
    Nach Nica­ra­gua hat es mich bisher noch nie gezo­gen, aber ich glaube, ich muss nach Little Corn, unbe­dingt.

    Reply
    • Christoph on 25. Oktober 2016

      Vielen Dank, Alex!

  • Joshua Pfeil on 25. Dezember 2017

    Ich bin sprach­los. Bin durch das stän­dige Rumstö­bern auf deine Seite gefun­den und konnte mir diese Reise nach Little Vorn nicht entge­hen lassen. Nicht nur super geschrie­ben, sondern auch mit dem Design, Bildern und die Emotio­nen die rüber kommen einfach nur klasse! Vielen lieben Dank für die Inspi­ra­tio­nen… :)

    Liebe Grüße,

    Joshua.

    Reply
  • christian on 10. Mai 2018

    This is an amazing article/story; the best writ­ten travel report I’ve ever read

    Reply

Overview

Antarctica